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The GNU build system

Autoconf solves an important problem--reliable discovery of system-specific build and runtime information--but this is only one piece of the puzzle for the development of portable software. To this end, the GNU project has developed a suite of integrated utilities to finish the job Autoconf started: the GNU build system, whose most important components are Autoconf, Automake, and Libtool. In this chapter, we introduce you to those tools, point you to sources of more information, and try to convince you to use the entire GNU build system for your software.

Automake

The ubiquity of make means that a Makefile is almost the only viable way to distribute automatic build rules for software, but one quickly runs into make's numerous limitations. Its lack of support for automatic dependency tracking, recursive builds in subdirectories, reliable timestamps (e.g. for network filesystems), and so on, mean that developers must painfully (and often incorrectly) reinvent the wheel for each project. Portability is non-trivial, thanks to the quirks of make on many systems. On top of all this is the manual labor required to implement the many standard targets that users have come to expect (make install, make distclean, make uninstall, etc.). Since you are, of course, using Autoconf, you also have to insert repetitive code in your Makefile.in to recognize @CC@, @CFLAGS@, and other substitutions provided by configure. Into this mess steps Automake.

Automake allows you to specify your build needs in a Makefile.am file with a vastly simpler and more powerful syntax than that of a plain Makefile, and then generates a portable Makefile.in for use with Autoconf. For example, the Makefile.am to build and install a simple "Hello world" program might look like:

bin_PROGRAMS = hello
hello_SOURCES = hello.c

The resulting Makefile.in (~400 lines) automatically supports all the standard targets, the substitutions provided by Autoconf, automatic dependency tracking, VPATH building, and so on. make will build the hello program, and make install will install it in `/usr/local/bin' (or whatever prefix was given to configure, if not `/usr/local').

Automake may require that additional tools be present on the developer's machine. For example, the Makefile.in that the developer works with may not be portable (e.g. it might use special features of your compiler to automatically generate dependency information). Running make dist, however, produces a `hello-1.0.tar.gz' package (or whatever the program/version is) with a Makefile.in that will work on any system.

The benefits of Automake increase for larger packages (especially ones with subdirectories), but even for small programs the added convenience and portability can be substantial. And that's not all...

Libtool

Very often, one wants to build not only programs, but libraries, so that other programs can benefit from the fruits of your labor. Ideally, one would like to produce shared (dynamically-linked) libraries, which can be used by multiple programs without duplication on disk or in memory and can be updated independently of the linked programs. Producing shared libraries portably, however, is the stuff of nightmares--each system has its own incompatible tools, compiler flags, and magic incantations. Fortunately, GNU provides a solution: Libtool.

Libtool handles all the requirements of building shared libraries for you, and at this time seems to be the only way to do so with any portability. It also handles many other headaches, such as: the interaction of Makefile rules with the variable suffixes of shared libraries, linking reliably to shared libraries before they are installed by the superuser, and supplying a consistent versioning system (so that different versions of a library can be installed or upgraded without breaking binary compatibility). Although Libtool, like Autoconf, can be used on its own, it is most simply utilized in conjunction with Automake--there, Libtool is used automatically whenever shared libraries are needed, and you need not know its syntax.

Pointers

Developers who are used to the simplicity of make for small projects on a single system might be daunted at the prospect of learning to use Automake and Autoconf. As your software is distributed to more and more users, however, you will otherwise quickly find yourself putting lots of effort into reinventing the services that the GNU build tools provide, and making the same mistakes that they once made and overcame. (Besides, since you're already learning Autoconf, Automake will be a piece of cake.)

There are a number of places that you can go to for more information on the GNU build tools.


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